GREAT FALLS, Mont. (CN) - Government agencies have dragged their feet for 20 years while two dams threaten the survival of the endangered pallid sturgeon, only 125 of which remain, environmentalists claim in court.
The pallid sturgeon was placed on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's list of endangered species in 1990. The prehistoric-looking fish dates back at least 78 million years and once thrived in more than 3,500 miles of river, including the Missouri and Mississippi, according to the agency.
The white and gray fish can grow to 6 feetand 80 lbs. It is easily identified by its flattened snout, whiskers and bony body plates. It has no teeth. Its mouth is under its snout for sucking small fish and invertebrates off the bottom of large, silty rivers.
Pallid sturgeons are scarce in Montana, including in the upper Missouri River above Fort Peck Reservoir and in the Missouri and lower Yellowstone Rivers between Fort Peck Dam and Lake Sakakawea in eastern Montana.
Its scarcity in the rivers can be directly attributed, in part, to the Fort Peck Dam and Intake Diversion Dam, which "make it impossible for pallid sturgeon to naturally reproduce in the last remnant of their historic habitat in the upper Missouri River basin," the environmentalists say.
Defenders of Wildlife and the Natural Resources Defense Council sued the Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Fish and Wildlife Service under the Endangered Species Act, on Monday in Federal Court.
The groups say the agencies have formally recognized the sturgeon's plight, but have failed to make needed modifications to the dams that would allow the 125 surviving specimens to reproduce.
"In the mainstream Missouri River, the timing, magnitude and temperature of water releases from Fort Peck Dam destroy the pallid sturgeon's spawning and nursery habitat," according to the 59-page lawsuit. "In the Yellowstone, Intake Dam prevents nearly all pallid sturgeon from reaching historic spawning habitat upstream of the dam - the only location in the Yellowstone where their young would have an opportunity to survive."
The groups say the wild population of sturgeon will be extinct by 2018 if the dams keep operating without modifications. They say the Endangered Species Act obligates the defendants to keep the species alive and help it recover.
Specifically, "the Corps is required, by the terms of a 'reasonable and prudent alternative' specified in a 2003 Biological Opinion, to test and implement 'flow enhancements' at Fort Peck Dam and make other modifications to the dam's operations. Twelve years later, the Corps has not done so," according to the complaint.
The Bureau of Reclamation is required to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service about the operation of Intake Dam, which would result in a biological opinion recommending modifications, but requests by the Service for consultation with the Bureau, beginning about 20 years ago, have fallen on deaf ears, according to the complaint.
In 2009, the Corps of Engineers proposed a plan that would release it from its duty under the 2003 biological opinion to modify flows at Fort Peck Dam, in exchange for funding the analysis and construction of modifications to Intake Dam that would allow sturgeon free passage upstream and downstream.
Six years has passed since the proposal but nothing has changed, according to the complaint.
The groups want the court to order the agencies to reinitiate and complete consultation for modification of the dams and act on a modification plan. They also seek costs and attorneys' fees.
They are represented by Michelle Uberuaga, of Livingston, Mont.; and McCrystie Adams and James Tutchton, with Defenders of Wildlife, in Denver.
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